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Forest bathing (Shinrin Yoku) for body, mind and soul

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Richard Staudner

"And into the forest I go to lose my mind and find my soul!" (John Muir, 1869)

This quote from John Muir, one of the first natural philosophers and conservationists, describes a feeling that many people probably know from forest excursions. The lightness, relaxation, joy and, above all, distraction that we find in the forest can actually support our health. 

This article is about the natural and healthy effect of the forest on us humans. We also look at Japan, a country where the practice of "forest bathing" has been studied for many years. 

Origin of forest bathing

Shinrin Yoku literally translates as Immerse yourself in the forest atmosphere. This is also shown by the Japanese characters. The many little crosses show trees and give the meaning forest and wood and the third character shows flowing water and a valley, so "bathing". Bathing oneself in the forest, so to speak. This practice has been practiced as a traditional form of recreation in Japan for a long time. 

While "forest bathing" may seem like a nice hobby to us in Austria, in Japan an entire scientific and medical sector has already built up around this practice. In the early 1980s, the Japanese ministry introduced the concept of forest bathing and launched a large accompanying research program. As a result, the first forest therapy center was opened. Today, universities in the country offer forest medicine as a specialization. In Japan, also, about ¼ of the population has already participated in special forest bathing activities. This is an impressive development. An active contribution to health development by the Japanese government. From my point of view a role model for all other countries in the world. 

Since 2007, intensive research has been conducted on the therapeutic effect of the forest under the Japanese Society of Forest Medicine, which is also slowly influencing international research. For example, the health effect of the forest was researched in a European project between 2004 and 2008. Furthermore, Austrian researchers have been working on the health effects of the mountains in recent years. (Niedermeier et al., 2017). and also of waterfalls. The combination of these natural elements results in the greatest benefit for us humans. For example, on our mental state and spiritual well-being. You may know this. In a forest, by a stream or a waterfall, we relax very quickly. In such places, we quickly find peace, forget about everyday life and can linger in the moment. In this series, I would like to explain to you why this effect occurs and how we can use this for the benefit of our health.

How exactly does forest bathing work?

Forest bathing is about relaxation and recreation and perceiving with all 5 senses. We can simply walk and wander in the forest or combine it with other calming activities. Such as meditation, cognitive behavioral therapy or breathing exercises. 

In concrete terms, this can look different for everyone. Maybe I wander slowly through the woods, looking for animal tracks or following a trail. Maybe I look for a nice spot, sit down and observe my surroundings, listen to the birds or the leaves in the wind. Maybe I snack on some wild strawberries, dangle my feet in a stream and smell the fresh scents around me. Or I may lean against an old tree, feeling the bark in my back, looking at its branches and twigs. I can also feel the forest, digging in the earth with my fingers, exploring the ground barefoot.  

Whether you're lying, sitting or walking, it's important to remain mindful and perceive your surroundings with all your senses. The smartphone has no place in this. Not even for a souvenir photo. Better save the memory on the hard drive in your brain. Or as a feeling in your hands and a scent in your nose. That has a much more lasting effect on us. 

And what's it all for? 

In addition to the relaxation effect, forest bathing is described as having a positive effect on health at many levels. Starting with mental health, through cardiovascular and immune system to social aspects, the forest unfolds its effect on us. The wonderful thing about it is that it is almost free and accessible to the majority of us. 

If you look at the history of mankind, this is perhaps not so surprising. Roughly speaking, man as we know him has existed for about 1.1 million years. We have been living in civilization for about 300 years and as densely as we do today only for some time. So life in villages and cities as we know it probably accounts for less than 0.1% of our human history. A time span too short to completely adapt our genetic code to this life. We are still programmed to nature. The researcher Miyazaki calls this the "back to nature" theory. 

The biophilia hypothesis of OE. Wilson describes it as follows: Humans have an innate connection with nature and all living things. We have the forest as a deeply rooted archetype within us. 

For millions of years it has provided us with food, shelter, moisture, water, wood to build houses and to make fire. So the sight of forest might appeal to deep-seated notions of security and thereby reassure us. 

The effect of forest bathing is probably based on an interaction of several factors. On the one hand, the psychological effect, such as colors, sounds and shapes, certainly plays a role. On the other hand, intensive research is currently being conducted into the substances found in the forest. The "terpenes" in the forest air are sometimes responsible for the smells of the forest, communication and protection of the trees and also have a proven effect on our bodies when we breathe them in. How exactly this works and what research has already found out about it, we will look at in the next articles!

Do we need forest bathing in Austria? 

Is that possible here? Our forests look different from those in Japan, don't they? In Austria, too, about every second person currently lives in an urban environment, and the trend is rising (Statistics Austria). The UN estimates that this average will also be reached worldwide by 2050. (United Nations, n.d.). The OECD reports that in Austria, about one in 2 people perceives work-related stress as a major issue, which puts us above the European average (OECD, 2015). So there is definitely a need for stress-reducing activities.

While forests are shrinking in many parts of the world, whether due to deforestation or climate change and resulting diseases, the forest area in Austria is increasing. About half of our country is covered with forest (Federal Ministry of Agriculture, Regions and Tourism, 2021).

It must be said that not all forests are the same. Forestry is an important economic sector in Austria, and thus a large part of our forests is intended for wood production, mostly with spruce trees of the same age. But: every year less is cut down than grows back, which is why the forest area is increasing. About 30% of our forest are protection forest and are not used for forestry. (Federal Ministry of Agriculture, Regions and Tourism, 2021). So we have plenty of forest, that's for sure. 

We will look at how else forests affect us and what health benefits we humans can expect in the following articles in this series. 

Sources

Antonelli, M., Donelli, D., Carlone, L., Maggini, V., Firenzuoli, F., Bedeschi, E., 2021. effects of forest bathing (shinrin-yoku) on individual well-being: an umbrella review. International Journal of Environmental Health Research 0, 1-26. https://doi.org/10.1080/09603123.2021.1919293

Bielinis, E., Janeczko, E., Takayama, N., Zawadzka, A., Słupska, A., Piętka, S., Lipponen, M., Bielinis, L., 2021. The effects of viewing a winter forest landscape with the ground and trees covered in snow on the psychological relaxation of young Finnish adults: A pilot study. PLOS ONE 16, e0244799. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0244799

Federal Ministry of Agriculture, Regions and Tourism, 2021. Austria's forests - protection, recreation, diversity and wood.

Hansen, M.M., Jones, R., 2020. The Interrelationship of Shinrin-Yoku and Spirituality: A Scoping Review. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine 26, 1093-1104. https://doi.org/10.1089/acm.2020.0193

Hansen, M.M., Jones, R., Tocchini, K., 2017. shinrin-yoku (forest bathing) and nature therapy: a state-of-the-art review. Int J Environ Res Public Health 14. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph14080851

Hartl, A., Grafetstaetter, C., Prossegger, J., Hahne, P., Braunschmid, H., Winklmayr, M., 2013. Health effects of alpine waterfalls. Presented at the Research in Protected Areas, Mittersill, pp. 265-268.

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Niedermeier, M., Einwanger, J., Hartl, A., Kopp, M., 2017. Affective responses in mountain hiking-A randomized crossover trial focusing on differences between indoor and outdoor activity. PLoS One 12, e0177719. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0177719

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United Nations, n.d. Around 2.5 billion more people will be living in cities by 2050, projects new UN report [WWW Document]. United Nations. URL https://www.un.org/en/desa/around-25-billion-more-people-will-be-living-cities-2050-projects-new-un-report (accessed 2.16.22).

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